Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Anthony Trollope, The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867)

The Last Chronicle of Barset seems like a book that isn't going to be very widely read, because, what with the “last” of the title, you're not likely to read it—intentionally or by accident—without reading the other books in the series, and how many people are able to plow through all of them? So there's the tempting thought: could this be a masterpiece, unjustly relegated to the margins by its inevitably unreadness? Not gonna keep you in suspense; the answer is an emphatic NO. But wasn't it a lovely dream for a few seconds there?

The main plot here concerns Josiah Crawley, a character who played a small role in Framley Parsonage (Lucy Robards nursed his critically ill wife back to health). He's a curate in the delightfully-named Hogglestock, living a life of grinding poverty with his family. Back in the day, he was close friends with Francis Arabin (the male romantic lead in Barchester Towers--do try to keep up), but while Arabin rose in the world, Crawley did not, which has rendered him proud and bitter (though also very serious about his work). Somehow, it has happened that he falls under suspicion of having stolen a cheque for twenty pounds, and his story revolves around the furious excitement that this provokes all around and how he reacts to them (hey, this was before videogames; people had to make do with what they had, entertainment-wise). The requisite love story involves his daughter, Grace, who is in reciprocal love with Henry Grantly, son of Archbishop Grantly. The Archbishop doesn't want his son to marry Grace because of her low status and because of the cloud her father has fallen under, and she likewise refuses him as long as suspicion of her father exists.

Now, all this is okay, if not wildly exciting. Crawley is a well-drawn character (although the mystery of the check turns out to be totally pointless and anticlimactic and would've been resolved in five minutes if a few relevant characters weren't out of the country), and if the love story is one hundred percent formulaic and predictable, well, there's a reason there's a formula for it—it works well, and it basically works here, even if Grace and Henry barely even qualify as characters. But what The Last Chronicle of Barset has going really, really hard against it is being nine hundred fifty pages long, a length which it achieves by being larded up with side-plots that range from pointless to risible. Cut all that shit out—leaving the novel maybe half of its current length—and it would be fine. But as it is...

First, there's the matter of this friend of John Eames (from The Small House at Allington), Conway Dalyrimple. Dalyrimple is a fashionable painter, and there's a truly confounding plot in which he's doing a portrait of a woman he may or may not be in love with in the house of a married woman whom he also may or may not be in love with—“confounding” because it's one hundred percent unclear what the hell the point of all this is. You expect it to intersect with something of more consequence in the novel, but it doesn't. Trollope makes no effort to make these characters sympathetic or interesting or anything and gives us zero compelling reason to care even a tiny bit what happens to them—and yet, here they are. Doing their thing. WHY???

Then there's good ol John Eames, half-heartedly flirting with a Miss Demolines while he pines after...oh, but we'll get to that. EQUALLY pointless, goes nowhere, and when she ends up marrying someone else, John has this classic line: “Poor Madalina! If he does beat her, I hope he will do it tenderly. It may be that a little of it will suit her fevered temperament.” LOL DOMESTIC VIOLENCE.

But I suppose I have little choice but to deal, now, with Lily Fucking Dale, with whom Eames remains desperately in love and who remains dumb and insufferable about the whole thing. I can't even tell you. The wikipedia page says—spoiler, I guess—that “the novel is notable for the non-resolution of a plot continued from the previous novel in the series, The Small House at Allington, involving Lily Dale and Johnny Eames.” This isn't true—it's just that the plot is resolved in the most infuriating way possible.

So Eames proclaims his love again, is rejected, mopes around, does it one last time, and is rejected for good and all, and in the end Trollope “expresses [his] opinion, in this last word [he] shall ever write respecting her, that she will live and die as Lily Dale.” It's not even, the novel notes, that she's still really in love with Crosbie. It might be that she's just not in love with Eames; this is suggested a few times, but her assurance to him that he at least doesn't have to worry about her marrying anyone else (THIS SEEMS EMOTIONALLY HEALTHY) indicates that that is not it. Try this on for size:

He took both her hands, and looked into her eyes. “Lily, will you be mine?”

“No, dear, it cannot be.”

“Why not, Lily?”

“Because of that other man.”

“And is that to be a bar for ever?”

“Yes; for ever.”

“Do you still love him?”

“No; no, no!”

“Then why should this be so?”

“I cannot tell, dear. It is so. If you take a young tree and split it, it still lives, perhaps. But it isn't a tree. It is only a fragment.”

So there you go. Being briefly in love with some douchebag as a teenager makes her a broken tree, and you sure can't expect one of them to find matrimonial bliss. Suddenly, I'm stuck in a Dickens novel, and I am not liking it. In fairness—I guess—Trollope also suggests that Eames will remain single as well—egalitarianism! It's just fucking awful, though. If there were any implicit criticism of this idiocy, that would be one thing, but it's just presented as being noble as all get-out. I may perhaps disagree. It really boggles the mind that Trollope thought enough of this plot line to drag it out again and then do absolutely nothing with it but reinforce how dumb it is. ARGH.

Anyway, I'm just going to go out and say it: I'm sick of indulging you, Tony. This is a bad novel. It didn't have to be, but it. Now go and sin no more.

'Course, as far as I've been able to discern, this may be the only negative review of the novel on the internet, so what do I know? No doubt it's partly just selection bias: most people probably don't get all the way through a series of six increasingly-lengthy Victorian novels if they're as lukewarm about them as I generally was about this series. And, of course, it's partly that I'm just a bitter and joyless individual. Six of one, half dozen of the other.

So there's your lot. A disappointment, I must say. I gave Barsetshire Towers four stars on Goodreads, because even though it was super delightful, it also had a few trifling flaws, and I wanted to give the series a chance to grow and improve. Never happened, though. In all of the subsequent books—hell, even this one, a little—there were really compelling parts that made me think “yes! This is the one!” But then they were all dragged down by obvious flaws, and I was left without the Barsetshire masterpice I was hoping for. ALAS. Do I have the fortitude to read the Palliser novels, looking for that one Trollope that's really gonna knock me over? Boy, that's a tough one. Certainly not in the foreseeable future. This series was not nearly as much of a trial to read as Proust, but it was certainly more of a let-down. Just for the record, here's how I'd rank them:
  1. Barsetshire Towers
  2. The Warden
  3. Framley Parsonage
  4. The Small House at Allington
  5. Doctor Thorne
  6. The Last Chronicle of Barset

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